Former Old World Pastime columnist John Miller recently went to South Africa for his day job. For Mister-Baseball he recapped his baseball experience on the trip.
I had a sunny day off in Cape Town Saturday, after a work trip, and got connected with Mike Randall, a 65-year-old coach and scout who works as an MLB envoy in South Africa.
I don’t coach anymore, but I did for almost 20 years in Brussels. One of the best outcomes of that is belonging to a fraternity of coaches across the world, men I’ve met at clinics, conventions and tournaments. My query about whether anybody knew a coach in Cape Town was swiftly answered.
I like to collect baseball stories, and Mike Randall’s is one of the best. He didn’t play in his first game until he was 24 years old. He had been a professional soccer player. A pal told him to give hardball a shot. “I was nimble, I was a good athlete,” he said. Soon, he was playing third base. Despite his age, he still walks like a fast-twitch athlete, his feet bouncing along the ground. He earned the nickname “Mikey foul-poles” by running with his pitchers. “I’m crazy about fitness,” he said.
Mike picked me up in Cape Town and drove me out to Bellville, half-an-hour away.
The second-placed Bellville Tygers (yes, correct spelling) played first-place Bothasig on a sun-drenched field had cut-out dirt squares around the bases, and short, hard, flat grass. Mike greeted his son Allan, who was playing second base. There are 10 teams in the league around Cape Town, and other leagues around the country.
During pre-game practice, Mike and I wandered over to the field, where the cricket club was in the middle of a game that started at 10am and would last until 6pm. I don’t get to see much cricket in Pittsburgh.
In the 1990s, the coach of the South African cricket team asked Mike to help him teach his players to throw like baseball players. Cricketers mostly throw sidearm or underarm, which doesn’t help them fire balls 200 or 250 feet, which they sometimes must do during a cricket match.
“They mostly couldn’t throw overhand,” he said, as we watched the men in white. “It’s a cultural thing, just the way they were taught or not corrected when they are young.” Cricket players often throw sidearm or underhand. Not as many rotator cuff injuries and surgeries in the British game.
I am growing in my appreciation of cricket. On Saturday, I saw an fielder toss a ball underhand 150 feet, and another catch it square with no glove.
In the late 1990s, Mike impressed the Kansas City Royals enough to join them as a scout. He attended spring training for almost 11 years. He has pictures, of stories, of meeting everybody from Nolan Ryan and George Brett to Rollie Fingers, Barry Larkin, Lee Smith, Rod Carew, Bruce Hurst, Mike Sweeney, Tony Pena. Carlos Beltran. And Buck O’Neill, the great Negro league star.
“When Buck O’Neill found out I was from South Africa, he asked to meet me. He drove me to drive with him to the airport so he could talk to me. He wanted to know all about Mandela.”
Major League Baseball hired Mike to run baseball initiations. Mike started taking clinics into impoverished all-black townships. He had been brought up in apartheid, a cruel institutionalized racist society.
Now, suddenly, he was being tasked with teaching black kids to play baseball. “That was the biggest growing experience of my life,” he said.
The game on the field was sloppy, as Bothasig built a lead, eventually winning 10-5. An older man next to us heckled the umpire in a guttural Afrikaans that sounded like a truck starting.
Mike and I talked baseball. I explained my fascination with the back-up slider, that top of the zone failed curveball that actually doesn’t hang and is hard to hit. We both criticized the catcher for receiving a pitch-out flat-footed instead of springing forward. Yes, baseball is easier to watch than to play.
In the last inning, with the game out of reach, Mike and I wandered to the clubhouse and sat on the porch drinking a couple beers. There was the usual post-game kvetching. Players aren’t practicing hard enough. It felt like home. The sun was setting and the wind was picking up.
“I don’t ever want to stop doing this,” Mike said.